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How can we help football come home?
No words could describe how I felt come the end of extra time on Wednesday night. As much as other sport fanatics may hate the next statement I am about to make, there can be absolutely no denying that it is true. No other sport in the world can bring these types of emotions to the average person on the street compared to the beautiful game. However painful the moment Mario Mandzukic expertly finished past Jordan Pickford was, inside every person in this country, there must be an immense amount of pride when looking back at the efforts of the England team in Russia. Everyone of them can hold their hand up and proudly say that they had moments of great play and more importantly, gave their all for the country. Gareth Southgate has so graciously and effortlessly delivered on his promise of making the public proud of the national team once again. In the past few days, there have been many journalists and pundits saying that this run to the semi-final can be the start of a special time for English football. I have been saying to my friends, maybe with more delusion rather than actual concrete belief, that this run is very similar to how Germany did in the 2006 World Cup at home. And we all know what happened eight years later in Brazil. All this is well and good, but it is not only the football team that has work to do in order to reach the pinnacle. We all have a part to play if we want to see football come home.
As we all saw against Croatia on Wednesday night, football can be a sport of such fine margins. What felt like domination in the first half was undone due to some midfield brilliance by Luka Modric and Marcelo Brozovic. Just a few moments of lapses in concentration from our boys meant that Croatia, a side with huge quality, could take advantage and book their place in the World Cup final. Southgate noted that after this semi-final run from his team, “expectations will rise”. Many will say that it is only right that expectations of further deep runs in major tournaments rise thanks to the team’s exploits in Russia. However, it is important that these expectations do not end up being misguided. Suppose we get through to next few tournaments and are undone by a side with far superior quality in the quarter-final or God forbid, the round of 16 stage. That should not be regarded as a failure on Southgate’s part or on behalf of the team. As we have seen in the friendlies before the World Cup as well as throughout the tournament, Southgate believed in the process of having his team playing in a particular style. This very enviable and courageous trait was seen in England’s first group game against Tunisia. With 10 minutes to go, we all expected Southgate to change tactics and play typically direct football in order to get the winning goal. But he stuck to his guns and was eventually rewarded in the final few minutes of the game. Even if the game ended as a draw, he would have seen the positives from the performance and that is exactly what we as fans need to do. Trust the process, not solely judge the outcome.
It is not only the fans that have a part to play if England want to win the World Cup for only the second time. It is time for the Premier League to help the national team. A constant complaint from lovers of the national team is that youngsters such as Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek do not get enough first team action to develop and realise their immense potential. While a large part of this has to do with the managers involved and coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp are more willing to take a ‘chance’, the supposed best league in the world must take a stand. As radical a decision as this may be, having a limit of the number of foreign players in the starting XI may be the only way coaches give a chance to the young English star. Klopp, when manager of Borussia Dortmund, said something extremely pertinent in an interview with the BBC. “It is extremely important for Germany to be strong in international competitions.” When the manager who has won the league says that, it must be important. That is what England needs from the many world-class managers in the Premier League. Of course, this is probably a wish that may never come true because of the money and pressure involved for coaches to achieve success. Time is a gift that not many people get in this profession, so it is completely understandable if managers are wary of giving players a break. But, we surely cannot leave this potential the England team have shown to bite the dust. All the officials, chairmen, and managers must get together and realise how they can help to bring the FIFA World Cup home.
As the dust settles on England’s storied run at this year’s edition of the World Cup, Southgate and his team will already be looking to how they can continue this remarkable rise. But, it is not only them who have to think about that, we all have to help if we want the joy of Harry Kane and the boys lifting the ultimate prize.